Back in the Saddle (and nearly back out of it)

After spending two weeks either away or lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself, drinking cough syrup and watching MacGyver, I finally got to throw a leg over a horse’s back again on Wednesday afternoon. As Skye is still supposed to be lame (although judging by the way she charges about like a two-year-old colt on steroids, she doesn’t think so), I picked the second-to-easiest horse I have, which is Arwen.

Arwen often flies off the handle when she is given more than two or three days off, so I was expecting some gymnastics on her part and some desperate clinging on mine. She surprised me by being sane and sensible. We spent twenty minutes pottering about in the arena, getting used to English stirrups again, practicing canter from a walk and halt from a canter (the former, what with Arwen being fresh and me having done rather a lot of it at Mooikrans, was easy; the latter less so). Arwen was a saint; she was a little rusty on bringing her head in and walking off with the correct leg, but there was not a single buck, bolt or spook to be had, about which I was very pleased.

After that I was going to groom Skye, but as she was grazing quite far down the paddock, I


thought I’d ride her up in her halter to see how she was moving and if she was getting sounder. I knotted the lead rope around her neck to use as a rein; I’ve ridden her in a halter a lot of times before and although the brakes are not quite what they should be, it’s always been fine. (Riding her without any tack is the fun part; it’s rather what I imagine driving a Ferrari with a trigger-happy accelerator, no steering wheel and very bad brakes would be like). Once I had convinced her to stop marching in circles like a hot-blooded filly at a racetrack, I managed to scramble on and she headed off for the gate at a steam-train walk.

In walk she was fine, so I chanced a trot (figuring that she would stop when she reached the gate) and she picked up her head and floated forward, that high hackney action powering onward and upward, effortless, graceful, heavenly. I had forgotten how she moves, how much I love the sheer rising pleasure in her gait, but my hands and legs had not forgotten and moulded themselves to her movement as easily as they had done a thousand times before. Best of all, she felt sound, as sound as a brass bell and twice as beautiful.

We only trotted for a short while, but throughout she felt really good with not a single limp, so I have a lot of hope that she is ready to be ridden again. I can’t wait. Neither, I think, can she; she’s a real pain when I’m jumping Siobhan or Arwen because she happily parks herself directly in front of the jump, or, when she’s in a really naughty mood, destroys the jump and stands there in the wreckage looking innocent. She’s eleven years old, you’d swear she’d stop acting like a filly by now. I love it.

The next day I decided to take Arwen for a bit of a jump since I hadn’t jumped for ages and missed it. Since she was going so well, I decided to challenge her and put up a quite big cross – probably 60cm in the middle, which isn’t high for Arwen, but she’d never jumped a cross of that size before. She gawped at it and jumped hugely the first time, very cautious, but quickly settled down to jumping it with her usual relaxed attitude.

Then I set it up to a real jump, about 90cm, and she popped over it several times with ease. She was going brilliantly and I was on cloud nine, so I took a chance and made it 1.10m. Taking it first from her best side, I let her down and rode her in too close to the jump without any rhythm to speak of, so naturally she stopped. The second time, I pulled myself together and committed to it. She responded beautifully and cleared the jump easily.

Then it was time to jump from her least favourite side. She has jumped it from her bad side before, but took the pole down every time, so I was determined to get her to jump it properly this time. I once again messed up the rhythm entirely, so she stopped, skidded into the jump and knocked it down. A stop and a pole down all in one. Impressive. Sorry, Arwen.

I put the pole up and we got back to work. It started out quite pretty, with a steady canter on the correct leg and me looking up and trying to judge the distance. Did I mention that I suck at judging distances? I gave her a kick to speed her up and that’s where it all crumbled as I realised that there was no way she was going to fit in another decent stride and we were all going to die. Thankfully, my six-year-old mare hauled my inexperienced butt out of trouble as if she was twice her age. Instead of putting in half a stride like I’d expected, Arwen and took off a stride early. I got left behind a little, but slammed my hands into her mane and gave her the reins. Arwen stretched out her neck and cleared it.

Another leap of faith

She might be a total airhead on outrides, and quite slow to learn new things, but when it comes to jumping she really is  sensible for her age. She loves to jump and wakes up the moment I put up the poles; her head comes up, she pricks her ears and responds to even slight touches of my hands and legs. But she doesn’t lose her head and do stupid stuff like buck, bolt or get over-excited, and she only ever stops if she feels intimidated by a jump that is much taller or wider than normal and challenges her. Even then, if I get my act together, ride her to a good take-off point and commit to it myself, she will usually jump, and I think most of our refusals are my fault.

Yesterday, after brushing Skye and giving her a massage (which she doesn’t like very much because it means she has to stand still for ten whole minutes at a time), Rain and I saddled Arwen and Siobhan and rode them in the arena. I started with some figures-of-eight on Arwen to work on using the correct lead. When she was concentrating she did very well; when she drifted off she did terribly. She focused better as we went on, and by the time we started to canter, she picked up the correct lead about four times out of five. We would canter one circle of the eight, slow down to a trot for a few strides in the middle, and then ask for a canter on the new inside leg again. This worked well and she really started to pay attention later on. She was forward and responsive, and I hardly had to do any kicking at all, which is wonderful compared to how she was six months ago.

Siobhan was apparently being naughty, and, Siobhan being a four-year-old on 2kg of feed containing maize every day, who had just had three weeks off, I was not surprised. We swapped horses and I told Rain to practice some cantering with Arwen while I got the tickle out of Siobhanny’s feet.

She was pretty fresh and obviously wanted to trot or canter, sometimes breaking into a trot of her own accord, but despite Rain and Arwen cantering around, she didn’t try any tricks like bucking, bolting or rearing. Once she was walking on a relaxed rein, I asked her to trot and she was superb; I had to hold her in tightly once or twice, on downhills and around corners, but she wasn’t foolish about it at all. I expected a buck or two during the first canter and was pleasantly surprised when she cruised off at her usual slow, steady pace. Siobhan might not look like much, but she does have a lovely canter, and she was sure using it. I handed her back to Rain knowing that she was as safe as she ever was, rest or no.

Cute or what?

Rain and Arwen had been trotting over a pole around 15cm off the ground, so I cajoled Rain into doing it with Siobhan (after showing her how easy it was by playfully galloping over it with Arwen, who decided that, due to our pace, it was HUGE and jumped it accordingly). The pony reverted to her usual tactic of trotting up to it and then walking over it, looking bored.

I knew that she was playing the fool, so I got back on her and she immediately realised that I meant business, trotting over the pole like an old hand; she even jumped once, and stayed very calm when we cantered it. Rain rode her again and she was stunning, popping over it without any trouble at all, and massively pleasing her rider.

I haven’t gotten around to working the other horses this week; I was planning to work Thunder and Secret yesterday morning, but it was cold and drizzly and I don’t need another week in bed. The four boys are living together in complete harmony, happy as birds. I hope to get a move on and finish the lungeing ring before summer; Dancer and Thunder will both be two in October and they both have only very basic lungeing training (not to mention Dancer’s Issues with a big I), and it’s time they learned more than manners and work in hand.

I think I might get back on Achilles eventually, but I’ll need to do a lot of lungeing work before then; I could probably just get on and ride him, but simply don’t have the guts. If I lunge his head off, maybe I’ll feel confident enough to ride him decently and then perhaps he will be more easily sold. He should be calmer now that he’s a gelding.

The writing has been going relatively well. Another Sword is around 45 000 words in length now, and I have high hopes that it will turn out under 100 000 words; I’m in the middle, which is always the hardest part, so it’s going a little slow. However, I think I’ve just found a way to cut off easily 10 000 words I don’t need (and mercifully haven’t written yet). I was halfway through writing loooong scene that was going absolutely nowhere when I got fed up with it, deleted it, and am changing it entirely; I hope that’s a positive sign that I’m learning to tighten my work. The action is building a little too slowly for my liking, though. All shall be revealed in the revisions, or at least bits of “all” that I can possibly fix.

After all, like everything else, it is all still a work in progress.

Lastly, a photograph from the Standerton Show on Friday, where I showed a lovely Holstein heifer belonging to Brett Gordon of Lovett Holsteins. Lovett 11047 – better known as the Duchess – was stunning to show and I had a fantastic time. Hopefully, a more in-depth post about the show will follow on the Hydeaway Farm blog. My Jersey adventures are recorded in the Joyful Jerseys blog. Both are struggling with readership, so if my loyal followers – 10 now, thank you! – could pop over there, I would be delighted.

The Duchess and I in her stall at the showgrounds


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